Globe and Mail

Triplets, 8, return with father after search ends in Acapulco

Mother awaits extradition hearing in case that galvanized hometown of Stratford

KRISTA FOSS
The Globe and Mail
Tuesday, January 23, 2001

TORONTO -- The three-month plight of missing Ontario triplets ended with a safe arrival home yesterday amid tearful relatives, clutched teddy bears and a flurry of TV cameras.

In their denim pants and sandals, wide-eyed siblings Peter, Olivia and Gray Merkley, 8, jumped into the arms of their grandparents and step-sisters at Pearson International Airport after arriving home from Mexico yesterday evening.

Their tired but beaming father, who has legal custody of the children, followed.

"I was lucky for all the help I had. Without that help these kids would not be home," Craig Merkley said yesterday.

The triplets had been missing since Oct. 14, the day of a court-sanctioned visit with their 39-year old mother, Carline Vandenelsen.

Ms. Vandenelsen, who lost custody of the triplets in 1995 after splitting up with Mr. Merkley, allegedly packed them into a blue 1989 Hyundai and left her parents' farm with $60,000 worth of cashed-in investments.

That was the beginning of an international three-month odyssey that reportedly took the triplets from Stratford, Ont., to Nova Scotia, Texas, Mexico and that included an aborted attempt to get into Panama.

The children and their mother were featured on the TV show, America's Most Wanted, and Ms. Vandenelsen made Interpol's most-wanted list.

Yesterday, Mr. Merkley admitted he was never certain he'd ever see his children again.

His fiancée Jan Searle, who accompanied him on the trip to Mexico to retrieve the triplets, said the youngsters were guarded at first with their father but started to reveal some of what happened on the plane ride home.

"She [Ms. Vandenelsen] told them she was making up for all the time she didn't have them, that it was her turn now," Ms. Searle said yesterday.

On Jan. 16, Mr. Merkley and Ms. Searle left Stratford on a sudden trip. They told their Centre Street neighbours they were travelling to California because a relative of Ms. Searle's was seriously ill.

In fact, they were going to Mexico.

Three days earlier, Mexican authorities had confirmed to Stratford police that a woman matching Ms. Vandenelson's description was living in a rowhouse on Acapulco's seedy side with three bright-eyed, if slightly grimy, children.

The Mexican police put Ms. Vandenelsen under constant surveillance. And Mr. Merkley sat in an Acapulco hotel for four days, just a 10-minute cab ride away from his children, while Canadian police negotiated with the Mexican authorities for a provisional warrant to arrest Ms. Vandenelsen and return the children to their father.

Late Saturday night, the Mexican authorities granted the warrant and Mexican police took Ms. Vandenelsen into custody on Sunday.

The case unified the tight, conservative community of Stratford.

Bob Montgomery, a friend of Mr. Merkley's neighbours, developed a Web site about the triplets that received 300,000 hits in the three months the children were gone.

"Neighbours help neighbours here," Mr. Montgomery said.

Eight-year-old Eileen Furtney, who lives next door to the Merkley triplets and is Olivia Merkley's best friend, never gave up hope.

"She was talking about how when Olivia comes home they would skate in the backyard rink I made," said Barry Furtney. "She never ever lost hope that Olivia would come home."

Ms. Vandenelsen will remain in custody in Mexico for an extradition hearing. She has been charged with parental abduction which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment.

Copyright 2001 Globe Interactive, a division of Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.